“Artists and Tradesmen of Letters”

“Artists and Tradesmen of Letters”

Forum and Century, April 1939

There is in our time a phenomenon, unnoticed as far as I am aware, that is very significant: this is the tremendous assault that is being made on the idea of “lastingness” as the test of human achievement, as the criterion of human values.

Lastingness, enduring power, has been always the test applied to many things that are the products of the mind, more especially to those that come under the heading of art. That a book or a picture or a statue or a piece of music lasted was an irrefutable test of its merit. Books on aesthetics were full of theories of what makes a work of art, but the real, everyday test up to the present has been: Has time respected it? Has it had enduring power? Of anything new added to the old treasures of art the serious critic would always ask himself: Will it wear? Will it endure the test of time? And the desire of the artist himself was to make something of an enduring appeal — in fact, being able to make such a thing was supposed to compensate for all the drawbacks, the struggles of the artist’s life.

These sentiments and convictions went with that belief in immortality that nearly everyone shared in, a belief that, although one’s body might die, one’s soul or one’s shade survived somewhere amongst other shades. Well, I do not believe that the assault on lastingness is going to succeed ultimately, though it may for a time, even for a long time, cause the belief in the importance of enduring power to lapse — and even though all the new political and social ideas have at the back of them the idea that lastingness is but a superstition.

A number of the books before me this month cause one to ponder on the question as to what influence the idea of lastingness has on the present generation of writers. There are before me the autobiographies of two very successful writers, Edna Ferber and Arthur Train, two characteristic magazine writers, both of whom — but especially Edna Ferber — have made large sums of money by writing. There are, besides, in translation, the poems of the great German poet, Rilke, who made but little money by writing; and there is a book on Flaubert and his great novel, Madame Bovary, a novel by which its author in all probability did not make as much money as either of the above mentioned magazine writers have made by one short story. (In our minds, too, at the moment there are the circumstances of the death of Yeats, the greatest poet writing in English in our time, who also made a comparatively small amount of money.)

That Flaubert, Rilke, Yeats all wanted to build “monuments of unfading intellect” we know, but there is not a single line in the autobiographies of Edna Ferber or Arthur Train to suggest that either of them wanted to make a lasting piece of work. Arthur Train quite frankly states that he chose to be a magazine writer. He had to make money to support his family, and the way to do it, he found, was to write for the magazines. The tone of his autobiography differs considerably from that of Edna Ferber’s. Within limits, he knows what literature is; he appreciates John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu, one of the most subtle critical works of our time — in fact, he appreciates a good many subtle products of the intellect. But, as far as his own work is concerned, what interest him are the prices it can command. And, like Edna Ferber, he considers the manufacture of magazine fiction “creative” work and coextensive with American literature.

Now anyone who reads at all will realize that Edna Ferber and Arthur Train represent a totally different form of intellectual achievement from that of Rilke or Yeats. Those two poets belong to a class of writer who has a long ancestry; we have had them since artistic expression in language had its beginning. But writers like Arthur Train and Edna Ferber are a modern manifestation. They write to supply a demand, a demand for entertainment and for a sort of knowledge — the knowledge of other people who are the contemporaries of their readers. The nearer their characters are to people their public knows, the more pleasure they give that public. And these writers represent the type of the successful writer of our time — the magazine writer, the story writer who makes a hit in the movies — in short, they represent the trade or business of writing.


NOW HERE WE have the real, the crucial problem that is before contemporary criticism: to make a clear and comprehensible distinction between writers like Arthur Train and Edna Ferber, in contradistinction to artist-writers like Yeats and Rilke and Frost (or, to come to novelists, in contradistinction to Flaubert or to their own American contemporaries, Willa Cather and Thomas Wolfe), and to make this distinction without throwing any disrespect on the work of the trade writer at all. It wouldn’t occur to us to despise a highly successful engineer who had made a great deal of money by competent and useful work, because he had not accomplished something like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We ought not to belittle the popular writer for not being something he was never intended to be, never wanted to be. Yet to make a distinction between the two kinds of work so clearly and at the same time comprehensively that any intelligent person, young or old, interested in literature could perceive it, is enormously difficult. Often, to make a real literary definition takes months or years of thought. I spent a couple of years trying to evolve an easily understood distinction between these kinds of writing and have still not succeeded — this though what I mean is perfectly clear in my own mind and though probably a great many of my readers have clear minds about it, too. Part of the difficulty is in the fact that many trade writers have so much of the artist in them that they might, almost unconsciously, produce works of art if they abandoned their minds to the task.

But it is obvious that, with the disparity of the books before me, I must make an effort to clear up the difficulty. The best I can do at the moment is to begin by taking over a few expressions from Aristotle. Now according to that ancient there are four kinds of cause in every organism: the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, the final cause.

Applying these to literature, the material cause is the experience the author has been aware of, an experience that may be emotional, intellectual, imaginative, or all together — so much the better if all three together. The material cause might conceivably be the same in kind and even in degree for any sort of writer.

The formal cause is the literary pattern the author takes over — drama, novel, short story, poem; this might also be the same for different kinds of writers.

The efficient cause is the mind of the writer, the maker; here we come to the breaking point between the artist and the trade writer: their minds are not the same. One will get a sharp idea of the difference if one will read, for example, Yeats’s autobiography and Edna Ferber’s.

But it is when we come to the final cause that the line between the trade writer and the artist snaps in two. Now in a real piece of literature the final cause, the end to which it is directed, is an enlargement of life of a kind which makes us go back, meditate and reflect on the work of literature. Even on the mystery and magic that is in single lines men have reflected for centuries. “Put up your bright swords for the dew shall rust them,” or, ” Dust hath closed Helen’s eyes,” have that in them which causes reflection and meditation.

It is obvious that the final cause is really owing to the efficient cause; that is, it is owing to the quality of the mind of the writer. This quality is not always owing to a difference of natural endowments: to some extent the difference comes also from the pattern of life in which the writer is brought up and with which he is familiar. Yeats, for instance, was born with poetic genius and artistic intuitions, but his early surroundings conditioned him to an understanding of art and impressed on his mind the idea of lastingness and the importance of making a lasting thing. Brought up in a frontier town by a shopkeeping instead of an artist father, he would still have been a man of great intellectual distinction but he could not have understood so well artistic expression and to what fundamental ideas artistic allegiance is due. Without those early surroundings he might have become a professor of philosophy or of literature or a college president.


EDNA FERBER’S autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure, is a success story, one of the magical success stories of American life. When she was a little girl, the daughter of a small shopkeeper in a Western town, and the hobbledehoys called names after her in the street because she was Jewish, she said to herself, as many little girls and boys have done in like circumstances, “Someday I’ll be rich and famous, and you’ll want to know me.” She did become rich and famous; she came to be so rich that she was able to rent the luxurious penthouse of the match king, Ivar Kreuger, on Park Avenue. She made, as Arthur Train in his autobiography informs us, three hundred and fifty thousand dollars from one child of her brain, Show Boat—that is, more than the work of Yeats or Rilke or Frost would make in a century or two.

To what is this immense success due?

Edna Ferber’s talent is considerable. She has excellent ideas; not Dickens or Gogol could have got hold of a better idea for a story than that of Show Boat. With her vitality she has indeed more in common with these great writers than have the merely literate writers whose novels are published by the score.

But her mentality is limited; she has neither the power nor the inclination to go deeply into anything she is writing about. Palpably she has had no literary training in any real sense; the one poem that she mentions in her autobiography is so bad that one is stupefied to know that it is by Housman.

Open Show Boat at any page and one will find a sentence like the following:

Outside, the redundant rain added its unwelcome measure to the swollen and angry stream. In the ghostly gray dawn the grotesque wreckage of flood-time floated and whirled and jiggled by, seeming to bob a mad obeisance as it passed the show boat.

The conglomeration of adjectives, the jingle of alliteration distract one’s mind from the meaning of the sentences, and this occurs over and over again in the pages. Though there is much description of characters and states of mind, there is never any real revelation of them. Sentences purporting to tell of what is going on in people’s minds are all external descriptions.

Edna Ferber and her readers may ask: What do these strictures amount to, since she has attained the goal she set out for — to be rich and famous on the one hand and to help to pass the time for an immense public on the other?

It would take too long to discuss this here; I am simply asking now that Edna Ferber’s sort of writing should be given its due place; that it should not be confused with the sort of literature whose art can be recognized.

Arthur Train’s autobiography, My Day in Court, comes out of a higher type of mentality but from a lower vitality than Edna Ferber’s. But, like Edna Ferber, he is definitely given over to the trade values of writing.

At the same time, every writer, no matter what final cause he has in mind, should read the last one third of My Day in Court, for this contains more matter of importance to the writer than all the manuals. Here Arthur Train, experienced lawyer, investigates the writing career: he explains why it belongs to the extrahazardous professions; he reveals its scanty average returns, which are to be set against its advantages as a way of life; he explains the relation between experience and writing material, the relation between the actual personages the author knows and the characters he projects in a story; he shows the difference between the factual rendering and the literary rendering of a happening or an experience.

Arthur Train himself has led a varied life both as a lawyer and a writer; nearly every person or thing he encountered was grist to his mill; he is emphatic about writers’ making “contacts” and correspondingly reserved about the value of an interior life. Like Miss Ferber’s, his model for a writer is a fiction writer, the writer for magazines — meeting a variety of people may be essential for them. But Flaubert, a great artist, found that a little of life, lived intensely and well pondered-on, went a long way

As in the case of all the popular writers,  Arthur Train, for all his wide reading and all his intelligence, is confused about the status, the art, the value of literature; this confusion is neatly revealed in a single sentence: “It is indisputable that, in quantum at least, the purveyors of women’s fashions gave a final boost to American literature.” What he means is they gave a boost to the manufacture of fiction, placing it amongst the commercial products of the country.


TO THOSE WHO have read either Arthur Train’s or Edna Ferber’s autobiography, I should earnestly commend Georges Duhamel’s In Defence of Letters. This book is intended, first of all, to recall to the public the understanding that its most important possession is culture, a culture that has been handed down to it, and that the main vehicle of that culture is still, as it has always been, the written word. In Defence of Letters is made up of pointed essays dealing with the problem of the survival, in the present-day world, of culture.

In the first essay, after noting the influence of the radio and the cinema on the average man, Georges Duhamel points to a state of mind which the popular story writers not only accept but exploit. “A hopeless confusion is growing up in the mind of the average man between information and understanding, between entertainment and knowledge.” And he notes that “the intellectual leaders of our time have not yet begun to give vigorous utterance to their uneasiness about this dangerous confusion.” Culture by its very nature demands an effort, an effort which our present-day civilization seems anxious to spare people; in short, as he says, “everything is made to aggravate a terrible modern malady . . . the decadence of attention.”

In other essays he recalls to us that we cultivate our minds by reflecting on what we have read or seen or heard. Reflection is a state the civilized man must learn to attain to. “Only books allow us this deferred but indispensable reflection.” And this is why a culture based on the cinema and the radio and, one may add, the popular stories in the magazines can never be a flourishing one. “We never feel the need of criticizing or testing or developing or, I might even say, of understanding them properly.” In Defence of Letters tries to recall men of letters to an understanding of how essential to society their profession is and to urge them to take it seriously. Today, when writers are required to enter unions, to put their names to political manifestoes, it would be well for them to read two particular essays in this collection; it would spare a good deal of ill will in the world if our writers, our intelligentsia, would take advice given here. “Like aloes which wait for years before flowering, writers should patiently investigate the causes they intend to assess.


IT SOMETIMES happens that a writer who has his or her mind fixed on lastingness can gain a large public. This has happened in the case of Pearl Buck. A peculiar thing about this writer is that, when she writes about the East, she is undoubtedly an artist but, when she sets the scene of her story in the West, as in This Proud Heart, she is merely a pretty good trade writer.

As one reads The Patriot, one thinks of the medieval Chinese novel that she has translated, All Men Are Brothers, or one thinks of the story back of the Willow Pattern Plate; for, like all works of art. The Patriot is related to other works of art that have gone before it. It begins with a statement that might be the opening of an old-world tale: “There lived in the city of Shanghai, in the fifteenth year of the Chinese Republic and in the Western year 1926, a rich banker whose surname was Wu, who had two sons.” It is with the fortunes of the younger of these sons, I-wan, and with Tama, the Japanese girl whom he loves, that the Patriot is concerned.

We are made intimate with the young people of a Chinese and Japanese household, who are fated to fight each other; with the family of Wu, living in the great house that the Westernized grandfather had built; and with the family of Muraki, living in the garden-surrounded house in Japan. In the Wu household we get to know old General Wu, with the uniforms and decorations that he has had copied from those of foreign personages, and his opium-smoking wife, who drenches the house with a perpetual smell of opium, disgusting her modern young grandson. We get to know Wu’s son, the bank president, the two grandsons — the idealistic I-wan and the corrupted I-ko. In the Muraki household we get to know three generations of Japanese; we get to know the mind of a modern Japanese girl, Tama, who, in spite of her love for Wu’s grandson I-wan, is ready to do her part to serve the Emperor to the point of marrying an old Japanese general whom she dislikes.

In the projection of Tama, a memorable revelation of Japanese character is brought to us. There is the passage in which I-wan, the man of an individualistic, uncontrolled people, ponders on his Japanese wife as, after the outbreak of hostilities between their two countries, she sleeps beside him.

Did she, he wondered, really have no will of her own? . . . What was that deep, steady persistence in her except the solidity of will? And yet, as he pondered it, he perceived that it was less her own will, her individual will, than it was something else — not tradition, because she was not slavish to tradition. . . . It was some solidarity of instinct which he did not understand because he had never seen it until he came here.

I-wan leaves Japan and his Japanese wife and goes back to his own country to take part in the struggle that the Chinese are waging against the Japanese invaders. Here we are brought into contact with leading personalities in modern China, some of them familiar to us from the newspapers, such as Chiang Kai-shek and his wife. The Generalissimo sends I-wan to influence the Communist army to make a common front with him. There I-wan dramatically finds that the officer he has to deal with is his school-revolutionary friend, En-lil, the student under whose influence he had once given allegiance to communism and who had married his grandmother’s bond-maid, Peony, the girl who had loved him.

The book ends with a sense of desperate struggle going on, a struggle which, one divines, will end with a new China, new psychologically and even geographically. Chiang, at the end of the story, has asked his wife to show him the map of the new road to Burma, and the conversation about the road makes a great impression on I-wan: “What if the real country his sons would know was this new inner China, looking not seaward but across the mountains to India? Who knew? But who knew anything?”

When Pearl Buck writes about such people as these, she is an artist, telling us new and profound things, things that we have not known before. If, as Duhamel tells us, it is the business of a writer ” to make acts of cognizance to the best of his ability” and if, as he says, a writer is fulfilling his social function when he helps us to a better understanding of the world and the people in it. Pearl Buck, in The Patriot, appears as a real writer.


RAINER MARIA RILKE has a place with the three or four great poets of our time. He does not concern himself with the external aspects of modern civilization. A great deal of his poetry comes out of his susceptibility to tradition as enshrined in art, in monuments, in historic cities. The everyday world exists for him, but it takes its significance from — to use a phrase which Yeats used in another sense — “monuments of unfading intellect.” His is the poetry of a man who was born beside the cathedral and the art gallery in an Old World city and who has inherited the culture of centuries.

So much comes to him through his eyes that one might say he is one of the most visual of all the poets. All his poems have a legendary quality: he writes a song for a beggar, a dwarf, an orphan, an idiot, a drinker; and these are all figures we can put beside a picture or a piece of sculpture. But Rilke is not only visual — he is reflective, sometimes so reflective that his spontaneity suffers. His imagery is extraordinary; his St. Sebastian under the arrows is

Far withdrawn like mothers when they suckle,
And bound unto himself like a wreath.

The present translator of Rilke, Mrs. M. D. Herter Norton, has adopted an interesting method of presenting this poetry in English. She does not attempt verse form nor does she attempt to reproduce the rhythm and the rhyme. She translates the poems simply, careful to give the imagery and the phrasing that is so characteristic of Rilke. On the opposite page she gives the original, and, even with an elementary knowledge of German, by the help of this clear translation a reader can understand Rilke’s creation. This seems to me to be the best way of translating poetry from another language. Anybody who wants to understand modern poetry must read Rilke, and this translation is to be recommended.

If I were asked what poems of Rilke’s would be characteristic enough for an anthology I should name three that follow each other in The Book of Pictures. In each we have Rilke’s intense vision and his nervous, tragic sense of alienation.

In “The Neighbor,” the sound of a violin evokes for him the cities he has gone through, the nights, the lonely neighbor who made music, and the rivers the violin players might have drowned themselves in if they had not had their music.

“Apprehension” is about hearing the call of a bird in a withered wood, a call which, though meaningless there, draws into itself all existence. This is a characteristic of Rilke’s poetry — how much of existence he is able to get into a few lines.

The third, “Lament,” has the sense of the universe of space and time made suddenly apparent to an isolated human being. The translation of it is a fine example of Mrs. Norton’s method:

O how are all things far
And long gone by!
I believe the star
From which I get radiance
Has been dead for thousands of years.
I believe, in the boat
That passed over,
I heard something fearful said.
In the house a clock
struck. . . .
In what house?
I would like to step forth out of my heart
under the great sky.
I would like to pray.
And one of all the stars
Must really still be.
I believe I would know
which one alone
has endured.
which one like a white city
stands at the end of the beam in the heavens. . . .

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